FYI: "Queen Sugar" Is An Intimate Story With Its Lens Set Wide
The best measure of any media is how well it can suck you into a world, and just playing the opening credits of Queen Sugar feels like stepping into St. Joseph, Louisiana. As we follow three generations of the family that built the state’s first and only black owned-and-operated mill, the camera constantly dwells on the landscapes that their legacy and livelihood depend on. Their heated arguments sometimes contrasted with cool water, and were sometimes left to simmer in the sticky, inescapable heat. The landscape is also an active player in the show’s more political themes - a prison with a largely black population sits across from a former plantation now regarded as a beauty spot, and a black worker is removed from land he has lived on for decades in order for white contractors to move in.
In fact, the only theme more intricately woven through the show than nature is family. We predominantly follow three generations: Violet, the wife of the mill’s late owner; their three children, Nova, Ralph Angel and Charley, and the children the three siblings now have themselves. However, both the lens and scope of the show is focused more widely than just the living blood relations, keeping family in the frame even if they are out of the picture.
Sometimes this is literal: an old friend keeping pictures of the mill’s founder beside those of his own children, or a boy drawing his mother while she is out of state building a new life. Sometimes, it is tiny details that point to a life before we were let in, like tally marks on a tackle box that hint to a father-daughter relationship we couldn’t have guessed on our own. The family considers those who are no longer with them and those that aren’t technically family in every move they make, simultaneously making a small story feel bigger and more connected, and making an ever-growing cast feel close-knit and familiar.
All of this effort goes towards making the characters feel real to the point of mundanity: they are just another family, navigating a thousand tiny problems daily while also trying to maneuver around the bigger ones. This realism is most evident when the problems are of the soap opera caliber: an affair, the diagnosis of a serious illness, or a brush with the law. The small, seemingly inconsequential moments we have spent with the family soak into the fibers of the story and lend it strength, adding nuance and depth to issues that, in another show’s hands, could seem like paper-thin plot fodder.
This delicacy and commitment to realistic world-building would be a credit to any show, but it is especially necessary in one that deals so heavily with race issues. Nothing is sensationalized; even the large, melodramatic moments are kept subtle and grounded, and the collisions with politics are there to serve the core narrative of the family, not the other way around.
When Micah, Violet’s teenage grandson, takes his first tentative steps into activism, it is framed as a desire to get to know “his people” and engage with the chosen family he finds in his community. This, like every other decision, is signposted through images and landscape. His mother only comes around to the idea when she sees the collage of images he has taken and arranged on his wall, images that lovingly zoom in on all the markers of African-American culture that his upper-class life has kept him from. Only when she sees his lack of understanding of his own culture as he does, as being cut off from a part of his family he desperately needs to know, does she concede to let him explore it.
All of this boils down to a cast of characters, and more widely a show, that is fascinated by connection. Whether the relationships are romantic, platonic or familial, people are constantly striving to reach and understand each other: across divides created by things as lofty as race, as pragmatic as business deals, or as small but important as differing parenting styles. The camera lingers on moments where characters break through or almost break through, on heads slowly leaning on shoulders, on muscles untensing as people are pulled into hugs, turning something as small as a glance into something that aches with meaning.
Coming away from the show, it is impossible not to recognise the barriers that stand in the way of connection, but it is also hard to feel like those barriers can’t be overcome. A whole episode can pass where nothing transpires more important than a fishing trip, a baking session or a school dropoff, and yet the tiny steps the characters have taken towards truly knowing each other in that time feel as courageous, as captivating and as important as any high-stakes drama. Likewise, each tiny miscommunication or trivial step back reminds us of the huge yawning gap anyone attempting to communicate authentically must traverse, and why that effort is so worthwhile.